**Update: Screening as part of Picturehouse’s Discover strand on 6 August. Find your nearest screening here**
Upon first coming across THE ACT OF KILLING—sticking out of the line-up at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival like some anomalous strange fruit—the reference point that sprang to mind was ACT OF VALOR, the 2012 Pentagon-backed Hollywood blockbuster which scored domestic box office gold thanks to its patriot-baiting premise: real-life Navy Seals taking on fictitious terrorists in a series of bombastic but thrillingly ‘authentic’ action sequences.
Further investigation revealed that Joshua Oppenheimer’s film had in fact been far longer in the making. Its genesis dated back to 2002, when the Texas-born filmmaker travelled to Indonesia to make a documentary with the survivors of the brutal (but largely unheard-of) genocide that took place there in 1965-66. But such was the bizarre premise of Oppenheimer’s finished product, it was possible to regard it as some sort of bitingly satirical riposte to ACT OF VALOR’s war-worshipping pseudo-realism.
Thwarted in his attempts to film the genocide’s survivors, Oppenheimer, too, had turned to a fascinating, frightening conflation of fiction and reality. Discovering the ageing perpetrators of the 1965 massacres to be perversely open and boastful about their participation in the atrocities, he invited them to make a film about them—one in which they would re-enact their killings in the style of their favourite Hollywood genre films.
Described in short, THE ACT OF KILLING might sound like an exercise in extreme bad taste. In fact, the re-enactments—replete with pyrotechnics, garish costumes and gory makeup—afford former death squad leader Anwar Congo and his contemporaries the time and space to reflect, almost for the first time, on their murderous acts. A wildly disproportionate response to an attempted coup by supposed Communists, the 1965 genocide is bound up in a national mythology that underpins Indonesia’s regime to this day, and which positions the perpetrators as patriotic heroes whose actions prevented a Communist takeover. But, revisited and dissected by the killers as a necessary part of the film’s re-enactment process, the myth begins to unravel, and the real human cost creeps into focus.
Besides shedding light on a neglected episode in world history, then, Oppenheimer has pulled off a remarkable feat of nonfiction filmmaking—one that has already won worldwide plaudits, as well as the support of documentary luminaries Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, who signed on as executive producers having been blown away by early footage. With the reconstructed killing scenes, Oppenheimer has taken the obfuscating element of performance that is present any time someone turns on a movie camera, and turned it into a means of eliciting the truth.
And the truth is that, unlike acts of mass killing in Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere, a continuing culture of fear and impunity has walled off those responsible from justice, contrition, or even acknowledgement of wrongdoing. But thanks to this astonishing, revelatory film, there is now new scope for change. Tapol is a UK-based group founded by former political prisoner Carmel Budiardjo to campaign for human rights in Indonesia. Alongside the UK release of THE ACT OF KILLING on 28 June, they are calling for the Indonesian government to ‘Say Sorry for 65’, so that a process of reparation and healing can finally begin. Anyone moved by the film can support the campaign and sign their petition at www.saysorryfor65.org.
As upholders both of diverse, stimulating cinema and of discussion and debate, we at Picturehouse are delighted to welcome Tapol delegates, as well as Joshua Oppenheimer himself, to a series of special Q&A and panel discussion screenings across the country. Find out where these are taking place and book your tickets here.
– Tim Rogerson, Picturehouse cinema programmer.